Sunday, 25 March 2007

Confronting the costs of capital punishment

Confronting the costs of capital punishment

This New York Times article discusses how a high-profile Georgia case is forcing folks in the state to appreciate and contemplate the economic costs of a capital punishment system. Here are snippets:

A high-profile multiple-murder case has drained the budget of Georgia's public defender system and brought all but a handful of its 72 capital cases to a standstill.

The case involves a rape suspect, Brian Nichols, who is accused of escaping from a courthouse here in 2005 after overpowering a guard, taking her gun and then killing a judge, a court reporter and two other people before he was recaptured. Prosecutors say the evidence against Mr. Nichols, including a videotaped confession, is overwhelming. But the case has cost the public defender system $1.4 million, and, on Wednesday, the judge in the case postponed jury selection until Sept. 10.

The judge, Hilton Fuller, said the "issue of funding" and the "complexities of this case have prevented an orderly and uninterrupted" method of proceeding. The Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, which manages the public defender system, has run out of money....

The situation has become a political issue as the legislature weighs a request for $9.5 million to keep the public defender system solvent through the fiscal year, which ends in June. The case "is testing the will of the state of Georgia with regard to whether or not the death penalty is worth the amount it costs," said Mike Mears, director of the standards council.

Georgia is not the only state pondering the cost of defending suspects in death-penalty cases. This year, the Colorado House Judiciary Committee voted to abolish the death penalty, replacing it with a sentence of life without parole, and to use the money currently spent on capital punishment to help solve some 1,200 cold-case homicides. The bill's sponsor, Representative Paul Weissmann, a Democrat, said it had cost the state $40 million in three decades to execute one inmate and put two others on death row. The bill now goes to the House Appropriations Committee. In Arizona, Maricopa County, which has been overwhelmed by a surge in capital cases, may not seek the death penalty in some cases to save money, officials there said....

Mr. Nichols has offered to plead guilty to all charges in exchange for a sentence of life without parole, but Paul Howard, the Fulton County district attorney, has refused to take the death penalty off the table. "The Nichols case could have been ended millions of dollars ago if the D.A. had been prepared to accept life without parole," said Emmet J. Bondurant, the departing chairman of the Public Defender Standards Council. "You can’t fault the defense for trying as hard as they can to save a man's life."

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